Tracking Overseas Connections

A scene from Genealogy Roadshow with Joshua Taylor.A scene from Genealogy Roadshow with Joshua Taylor.

Tracing the overseas origins of an ancestor can be a challenging task. Luckily there are plenty of resources available to help you identify your relative’s homeland. Whether your family arrived at Jamestown in the early 1600s or at Ellis Island in the early 1900s, numerous records exist — both online and offline — to help on your quest. An ancestor will often leave behind far more clues than you might think.

Before jumping across the pond, it is essential to check sources within the United States. A relative’s birth, marriage, or death record might give important clues to a family's origin. Be sure to check the records of any siblings, parents (if known), and children as it is possible that only one record will list the actual town an ancestor was born in, while the others will only identify a country.

Some years of the U.S. census record will let you know if an individual had naturalized and can even provide the year of naturalization. If you believe your ancestor went through the naturalization process, be sure to check the records of the areas where they lived. An excellent guide to location naturalization records is Christine K. Schaefer's Guide to Naturalization Records of the United. Schaefer's work examines records at federal and state levels for areas across the United States where records of the naturalization process can be located. The information contained varies and depends on the laws at the time your ancestor naturalized. Some records only provide the date of arrival and country of origin, while some might also provide the birth location, ship's name, and other details.

While passenger lists do not often exist for early arrivals into the United States, the records of major ports are available from the mid-nineteenth century and onward. These lists become more detailed as time progresses and might even provide the name of a relative in the United States as well as a relative left overseas. A place of origin is sometimes included, giving you an excellent starting place in your search overseas. An excellent resource on locating records of your ancestor's arrival is John P. Colleta's They Came in Ships: A Guide to Finding Your Immigration Ancestors' Arrival Records published in 2002.

Some families might have a legend that their name was changed during the immigration process or at Ellis Island. In truth, names were not actually changed at Ellis Island. The clerks at Ellis Island were usually hired based upon their knowledge and skills within a specific language. During their lifetimes, new immigrants faced a variety of record creators who did not speak their native language (census enumerators, vital registrars, etc.), but at Ellis Island most likely met someone who did, in fact, speak (and write) their native language.

Joshua Taylor-fade_x.png Clerks were usually working from lists created around the time of departure, not necessarily at the time of arrival. The statement that a name, “was changed at Ellis Island” isn't at all accurate. It is possible a name was misspelled when an individual boarded the ship, though the chances of a name actually being changed at Ellis Island are certainly small. An excellent read on Ellis Island and the activities there can be found in Vincent J. Cannato's American Passage — The History of Ellis Island.

It is possible you will encounter conflicting information during your search for a family's origins. When asked to list a place of birth, an ancestor might provide their parish of origin in one record, while providing the name of a nearby city in another. You should also keep in mind that place names might be Anglicized on some records or might no longer exist when you search for them in a gazetteer or modern-day map. To locate these areas, search for a local map of the area, created around the time your ancestor lived in the area to identify previous locations.

Be sure to check other records for clues, including local religious records. A record of baptism, marriage, or burial might provide clues to a family's origin, or even list the exact town or parish an individual came from. The place of origin might even be inscribed on your ancestor's tombstone in a cemetery. Family letters, diaries, and other materials might often provide clues that help you journey across the pond.

— Joshua Taylor

Where to Start Tracing Origins

Where to Start Tracing Origins

A genealogist is like a detective, searching for clues in the records.

Researching Free People of Color

Researching Free People of Color

How do you know if your ancestor was a free person of color?

Newspaper Research

Newspaper Research

A local public library in the area where your relative lived is a great place to start.

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